The Astrup Fearnley Museum

A first look at Oslo's new private institution

By Gesine Borcherdt

Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo. Photo: Nic Lehoux

It’s like being on the deck of a luxury ocean liner – tall, light-coloured wood-clad walls and a view out across the fjord. Above us a glass roof, like a sail floating out from the gentle curve of the building. Oslo’s waterfront has a new flagship: the Astrup Fearnley Museum, designed by Renzo Piano. This elegant construction at the tip of the Tjuvholmen peninsula is part of a brand new waterfront development scheme within walking distance of the town hall. The city of Oslo, keen for art to add value to the area, has put the new building at the disposal of the Astrup Fearnley Museum. The Astrup Fearnley Collection, owned by the shipping magnate Hans Rasmus Astrup, is now on display in the new complex. A controversial model, but one that may well be taken up elsewhere now that public institutions are increasingly showing works from private collections.

The 1,500 works in the collection, mainly contemporary art from the USA, used to be housed in the museum wing at Astrup’s company headquarters in the city. Now, in the new Piano building, with its total exhibition space of around 4,000sqm (plus sculpture garden and a private shoreline), the collection has a home that is three times the size of its previous quarters. “In fact we now have two buildings – one for the collection and one for special exhibitions,” director Gunnar Kvaran, who has run the museum for the last 11 years, tells us. “The particular thing about our collection is that we aim to collect a wide range of works by just a few artists, rather than the other way round” – which is why no other museum in Europe has such a concentration of works by Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and Matthew Barney.

In contrast to the large-scale works that sometimes seem to be jostling for attention here, the inaugural exhibition, To Be with Art Is All We Ask – quoting Gilbert & George – has a quite modest-sounding title. The combination of Barney’s Cremaster fragments, Damien Hirst’s dissected cows and Richard Prince’s Cowboys could seem somehow superficial if it were not for the fact that Astrup is also an ‘in depth’ collector and cannot be accused of merely name-dropping. Besides selected Norwegian artists, such as Vibeke Tandberg, Bjarne Melgaard and Ida Ekblad, the younger generation of New Yorkers is also represented here – including Josh Smith, Seth Price and Kelley Walker, exploring their legacy of appropriation in typical copy-and-paste manner.

The museum’s exhibition spaces – some ever so confined, others more like conference rooms – don’t always make it easy for the art. Robert Gober’s sink next to a firehose, for instance, takes on an unintentionally comic air, and Dan Colen’s Pollock replicas made from chewing gum and bird droppings just don’t benefit from being on a high wall with a view out over the water. But some dialogues work perfectly – such as Nate Lowman’s smiley behind glass next to Tom Sachs’s triptych of toolboxes, whose dismantled weapons prompt a pause for reflection. And then there are Anselm Kiefer’s bookshelves from 1988 that now have to contend with Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles from the same year. In fact there is a lot of figuration on display, which in Kvaran’s words is all about power, sex, identity and violence – in short, urban life. However woolly that may seem, it doesn’t detract from the euphoria with which someone here has a finger on the pulse of the present day.

So it is easy to forgive Kvaran for the fact that in 2013, after special exhibitions on Paul Chan and on the grotesque in the work of Cindy Sherman, he will present another overview exhibition on a BRICS nation: contemporary art from Brazil. This follows Indian Highway and China Power Station, for which he invited Hans Ulrich Obrist onboard. The thing is, themed exhibitions on art from booming economies can tend to smack of artificiality.

The area around the museum, with its steel-and-glass appeal, seems to be more about business than art. But if, as they say, it’s all about the company you keep, the company here is top-notch. The Berlin gallery Gerhardsen Gerner now has a second home here, where they are representing Olafur Eliasson; Peder Lund is marking his move here with Paul McCarthy; and it will not be long before the new building for the National Museum will be under construction. “The idea is that Tjuvholmen will create a new ambience – in tune with the open-minded outlook that has emerged here in Oslo in recent years,” as Kvaran puts it. This in itself is partly down to the curators from farther afield who have been loosening up the institutional structures here – like Sabrina van der Ley from Berlin, now at the National Museum, whose current exhibition, I Wish This Was a Song, includes Gilbert & George, Susan Philipsz and David Zink Yi. Marianne Hultmann is stirring things up at the Kunstverein, which is currently showing work by the Israeli video artist Dafna Shalom. And the opening of the new Astrup Fearnley Museum makes one thing abundantly clear: having been tethered to the quay for long enough, Oslo’s art scene – once known for its lifetime grants for artists and preference for art from Norway – is now heading out into global waters.

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott. Astrup Fearnley Museum, Strandpromenaden 2, 0253 Oslo.